Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The new millennium

August 31, 2008


Here in the doldrums just prior to the new Fall season, I thought I’d try a little something different here at OutWestArts. Being a fan of new operas and looking forward to a number of new and recent works in the coming months, I'm offering up a little audio contest. Below is an mp3 link featuring seven brief snippets from operas that premiered after 2000. To play, e-mail me at brian@langhamstation.com naming all seven works, their composers, and the names and roles of the featured vocalists in each segment. The grand prize is a brand spanking new DVD of the final opera featured in the quiz, which I will mail to the first person to correctly identify all seven operas and the 10 featured vocalists correctly. I'll name the winning entry on Monday, September 8. Good luck.

21 Century Opera - Press to Play


Your Name Here

August 30, 2008

The LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl
Photo : mine 2008

You’d think it was February or March here in Los Angeles this week the way scheduled performers have been dropping like flies at the Hollywood Bowl. Guest conductor Edo de Waart called in sick not only on Tuesday, but on Thursday as well. Thursday’s performance with the L.A. Philharmonic, which I attended, was doubly plagued by the cancellation of scheduled soloist Julian Rachin. I suppose it is a testament to the strength of the organization that they were able to pull off the same program anyway on relatively short notice with two replacements without compromising their usual high standards.

De Waart’s cover was local favorite and former L.A. Philharmonic assistant conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. He’s currently music director with the Fort Worth Symphony and he makes frequent return appearances here on the West coast much to everyone’s pleasure. The program was Russian, featuring an Shostakovich overture, Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. Nothing shocking, but these were bonus tickets with my subscription and what’s not to like about Prokofiev. The soloist fill-in was Augustin Hadelich, a young fresh face who's popping up here and there these days. He wasn’t bad. For a younger artist he was blissfully free of histrionic mannerisms, but by the same token his performance lacked a certain edge to it – pleasant enough within the standard professional limits.

Harth-Bedoya has plenty of experience at the lackluster Bowl and he seems to have figured out how to keep the orchestra in the mix without fading into the background. The orchestra sounded big and forceful when they should and even the mildly irritating amplification didn’t seem to take much away from the Tchaikovsky. In my book that is an accomplishment given the locale.


Kind of Blue (and pink, and red)

August 24, 2008


Radiohead is back in town and tonight was the first of two shows at the Hollywood Bowl here in Los Angeles. Like Wilco, Radiohead is one of those bands that so outpace virtually all of their contemporaries that even on a bad day they’re better than most anybody else around. And tonight was certainly not their worst, even if it was a show that was easier to admire on an intellectual level than a visceral one. These young men know how to crunch and rock with the best, but that was not the order of things on Sunday. The two hour set was unsurprisingly dominated by material from In Rainbows but even the smattering of earlier material picked for this show tended toward the more somber, sedate, and blue. This seemed to be off-putting to the crowd at times. In quiet moments, there was rarely silence (at least in my neck of the bowl) but shouts and comments often for laughs. It wasn't so much heckling as it was a clear mismatch between what was expected and the downbeat but beautiful performance that was offered.

This was the plaintive Thom Yorke and his crew, and while they weren’t always delicate, they weren’t in a hurry for the sun to break through on this rainy day set of songs. But it was often pretty. Not just musically but visually as well, with a rather elaborate light show that was totally “sick” according to the young pot-head who sat behind me. Indeed, huge screens were awash in color as cameras caught the band in various close-ups throughout. Curtains of lights surrounded the band on stage for a dizzying variety of effects. I couldn’t help thinking of why opera directors can’t come up with something this fetching if a rock band can pull it off for a concert.

The show opened with The Liars who seemed an appropriate complement if their singer, Angus Andrew, did have the proclivity of stating the obvious as if it would generate excitement in the crowd. “This is Los Angeles!” he wailed and while it may not have whipped the audience into a frenzy, its accuracy is hard to ignore. Of course, Radiohead is never about the obvious. They play with abandoned that balances the best of electronic beats and effects with simply well-written songs. A hook is not unheard of and they are not afraid of the slow build or letting things fall apart when it's called for. On Sunday, it just wasn't about the urgency. It was a night to reflect and ponder about the past and maybe what was lost. Which is just fine.


From the canyons to the stars

August 22, 2008

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Photo: Decca Kasskara

You never really know what you’re going to get with a straight L.A. Philharmonic show at the Hollywood Bowl. But you can be sure that whatever you do, it would sound better if played elsewhere. It almost seems unfair to write about shows in this landmark L.A. venue, given that they start out at such a disadvantage. The music always seems far away, the amplification is never quite right, helicopters whizzing overhead, and so on...

But still, year after year I go a handful of times as part of some obligatory summertime ritual. I’ll pick a show with something I really want to hear or a soloist I enjoy and grin and make the best of it. In the last two weeks I’ve seen two such shows with the expected mixed results. Last Tuesday was a stretch of a program under the baton of Leonard Slatkin consisting of Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto, excerpts from his CIVIL warS, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Slatkin made some weak attempt to link the two composers instead of acknowledging that the Elgar was there as a sop for audience members who might feel they would require such an apology. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour was the soloist and he and the orchestra delivered quite a nice and fairly dynamic reading of the Glass concerto that was lost in the distance. User-friendly fare that is full-bodied—like the Elgar—works well here and it was completely adequate.

This week, the Philharmonic showed up with local favorite Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Assistant Conductor Lionel Bringuier for a grab bag Eastern European program centered around the Khachaturian piano concerto. Thibaudet was all over it in a good way and Bringuier did more than just keep time, placing the orchestra well within the overall mix of things. Thibaudet is liked here for a reason and he never disappoints. This night was no exception and the crowd received him very warmly. There were a number of other short favorites that evening from Tchaikovsky, Glinka, and Kodàly as well, and if you could get over the repeated annoying crackling and popping of the amplification, you might have convinced yourself that it was a great show. Sadly it was a little closer to average under these constraints. The good news, though, is that none of this has anything to do with the typically excellent playing from our hometown orchestra which will be returning to their regular home downtown in a few weeks. More great reasons to love the Fall.


Look out. Here it comes.

August 17, 2008


I was recently asked what I was looking forward to seeing this Fall and I have to admit, this doesn't look like the most stimulating season opening with many of the more pressing Los Angeles-based performance highlights on hold until Spring. On the opera front, Los Angeles and San Francisco seem to be hedging their bets for bigger and brighter things down the line. LAO will open it’s season on September 6 with a well-cast, new Il Trittico directed largely by William Friedkin, but with some thoughts from upstart new-to-opera director Woody Allen thrown in for good measure. The next night is the U.S. premiere of Howard Shore’s The Fly after having received decidedly mixed reviews earlier this summer in Paris. Not to be outdone, San Francisco Opera is offering its own decidedly underwhelming new opera idea in Stewart Wallace’s adaptation of The Bonesetter’s Daughter. This will be performed in repertory with a well-cast, but likely unattractive, Simon Boccanegra and probably the real highlight of the entire San Francisco opera season, Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. There are some various Carmen, Butterfly, and Boheme performances as well, which aren't worth spending any more time on.

The L.A. Philharmonic starts its fifth season at Walt Disney Concert Hall on the first of October for what will be Esa-Pekka Salonen’s last season as music director before handing over the reins to the overrated Gustavo Dudamel. Most of the big gun Salonen shows, which will focus heavily on Stravinsky, won’t arrive until spring, but there will be some worthwhile shows in November including a Peter Sellars semi-staged performance of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments with Dawn Upshaw, Thomas Adès conducting Berlioz and his own Tevot, and Christine Brewer singing Struass’ Four Last Songs with presumably exuberant assistance from Dudamel. Dudamel will conduct another program the following week with Strauss' Alpine Symphony and from what I saw at the subscriber exchange day, these may be rather tricky tickets to get if you don't have them already. Not to worry, though - the glow of this honeymoon will wear off I suspect in the not too distant future making these shows much more accessible in future seasons. The Los Angeles Master Chorale will also fill the Walt Disney Concert Hall with two programs prior to their usual tried and true Christmas routine in October with Rachmaninoff's Liturgy of St John Chysostom, and in November with works from Lou Harrison and a world premiere from Chinary Ung.

Theater-wise, the Center Theater Group will be presenting a number of local premieres including the touring production of Spring Awakening, the local premiere of Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed with Julie White, and the world premiere of the Dolly Parton musical 9 to 5, which could at the very least be one of those very entertaining train-wrecks. The Mark Taper Forum will also reopen after its year-long renovation with John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves and Peter Whelan’s The School of Night. However, if you want the good stuff, you may want to head over to the Westside for this year’s International Theater Festival at UCLA Live, which will feature among others a return of both Robert LePage/Ex Machina with The Blue Dragon and the wild, woolly, and wonderful Volksbühne from Berlin who will again mine the Russian canon with a production of Chekhov's Ivanov. There will be a number of other West Coast premieres before year's end worth seeing including The Blank Theater's production of Stephen Karam's Speech and Debate, South Coast Rep's version of Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cellphone, and REDCAT's import of The Sound and The Fury, April Seventh 1928 from New York's own Elevator Repair Service.

But wait, there’s more. A bevy of pop shows could be worth your time including local visits from Radiohead, Sigur Ros, RATATAT, Tricky, My Bloody Valentine, Madonna, and why-the-hell-not Celine Dion. Of course, there are some out-of-town events in the offing on my personal schedule as well, including the Dessay/Kaufmann Manon and Berg’s Lulu in Chicago, Fleming’s turn in Lucrezia Borgia in Washington, and several worthwhile offerings from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which will be capped with easily the operatic event of the Fall, John Adam’s Doctor Atomic. Somewhere in there I hope to squeeze in revivals of Equus and The Seagull— and if my luck holds out, I’ll get to catch New York appearances from Pina Bausch’s Tanztheatre Wuppertal at BAM.

So, there you have it. My work here is done. The rest is up to you. Details for all of these events and others can be found via the links on the left.

Let's begin, again

August 16, 2008

from Achim Freyer's 1983 staging of Glass' Satyagraha
Photo: Image Entertainment
Well, it’s the second anniversary of Out West Arts and it’s time for a makeover. There has been a lot of talk over the last year in various and sundry corners about the effect music bloggers like myself have on the quality, amount, and location of writing about music and art in general. Much of this is drivel. It’s funny to me that people who are so quick to question the presence of a “crisis” in classical music as an economically viable art form, at least here in the U.S., are often all too ready to jump on the bandwagon regarding the “demise” of classical music criticism. But life goes on here at OWA, and, when I’m not busy creating more populist scribblings to destroy the careers of legitimate music critics, I like to concentrate on the visual elements of my own humble web abode. In fact, if one wants to launch a criticism of music blogs, it seems to me that the issue is not how poorly written or uninsightful they are (two qualities I pride myself in cultivating), but how crappy they look. Here’s some news – the web, unlike music, is largely a visual medium, but most of those who write regularly about music on the web seem to be content with cookie-cutter pre-fabricated templates from their various hosts. I’m not going to point fingers, but look around and take note. Visually, most music blogs lie somewhere between an ersatz corporate yawn and ‘90s throwback Dreamweaver kitsch. I suppose a Spartan approach can bolster one’s sense of ideological legitimacy, but this is Hollywood baby, and sometimes what you have to say is equally important to how you look while you're saying it.

But enough about the upcoming elections and lets get back to me, me, me - this is a blog after all. I took this anniversary to also look back on my first few blog posts to revisit why I started doing this and what I intended to write about. Little has changed in either my reasoning or intention even if I have not always lived up to my own goals. I’m still not interested in ferreting out gossip or reporting breaking news of any kind. I also am not interested in writing about my personal life, pets, family or other ancillary issues. While Photoshop is the greatest comic tool since the whoopee cushion, I'm not terribly inclined to rely on it as a source for material. I continue to primarily write reviews of what I see from a perspective that is not especially informed, but is interesting to myself and I hope others along the way. I have a minimal amount of music and theater education but I am neither a professional or an expert in either field.

I started this blog because I felt, and still feel that Los Angeles has one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world and there isn't near enough written about what goes on around this town. In fact, this is much more the case now than two year’s ago with the demise of virtually all newsprint non-film and TV arts writing outside a handful of folks at the ever-worsening Los Angeles Times. Additionally, there are still too few music and arts blogs in Southern California and the very fine ones that do exist don’t publish frequently enough to cover everything that should be in a town this size. I also started this blog to advocate for people, trends, and projects that I don’t feel get the positive attention they deserve. I’m a big fan of new and late 20th century music, especially opera. I think operatic and musical taste by the majority of people who consume these commodities in the U.S., especially in cities like Los Angeles and New York, is provincial and uninspired. I like ridiculously over-the-top productions and I want to see performers who can act as easily as they sing and I don’t think one talent should be privileged over the other, especially in opera. There seem to be so many “opera lovers” who spend their time debating minutiae of singing technique and carping over such a small range of vocalists in such a small number of roles that opera becomes little more than the equivalent of pornography - the fetishization of the unamplified voice has reached a point where a certain group of listeners get off by hearing nothing more than minor variants of the same physical acts over and over again ad nauseum. Flawless singing is nice, but in opera, it is highly overrated.

So this is Out West Arts. It may not be to anyone's taste and sometimes even I'm not so sure what it's all about either, but I imagine I'll keep going, so keep reading if the desire so moves you.

Going to a campfire way down south

August 12, 2008

Kelley McAndrew and Anthony Crane
Photo : Craig Schwartz/Old Globe 2008
The worst thing about the rather vibrant and interesting San Diego theater scene is that it is in San Diego. Not that there is anything wrong with that very lovely city by the sea – a sort of Boca Raton for Southern California, it’s just that it is an infuriatingly unpredictable but sure to be lengthy car ride from Los Angeles. It could be two hours, it could be five, you never can tell. Plus you have to nervously drive by that nuclear power plant in San Onofre. Why anyone needed to add to the potential for disaster by building a nuclear plant in America’s premiere earthquake region is beyond me, but there you have it.

But, of course, driving down to San Diego is required to sample much of the fine theater available there. One must be careful, however, given that you never know when your trip will end up in A Catered Affair. So I was quite pleased on Sunday—even after the 10 minute panicked jog through Balboa Park due to my bad parking planning—to get to the Old Globe Theater for two very good shows. Of particular interest and highly recommended is the Globe’s new revival of Donald Magulies’ Sight Unseen, which is playing in the Copley Auditorium in the San Diego Museum of Art next to the Old Globe Theater complex (undergoing renovation). This play put Margulies on the map over 15 years ago and helped cement an ongoing and very fruitful relationship with the South Coast Repertory theater in Costa Mesa (which will revive Margulies’ Collected Stories this coming spring).

Played in the round, the Globe’s current production of Sight Unseen, directed by Esther Emery, is pretty near perfect and quite wonderful. The cast manages to live up to the complexities and ambiguities in the text with seeming ease. Anthony Crane, who is no stranger to the role, plays Jonathan Waxman, a recently very successful artist who has come to visit a former paramour and muse, Patricia, played here by Kelley McAndrew, now living with her husband in the English countryside. These two actors are at the center of everything that happens over these two hours and manage a remarkable job with this multi-layered work. Totally believable, the performances maintain an exciting energy throughout. They are joined by Ron Choularton and Katie Fabel who are quite strong here. The play is told out of order in a fashion similar to that of Pinter’s Betrayal and given that Margulies manages to keep that out of your mind while watching it is a real testament to his talent and the quality of writing. It’s also interesting to see how other playwrights have more or less knocked off this idea with much less interesting results as Neil LaBute did with Some Girl(s). In any event, this revival is well worth a trip down south.

I also caught the final performance of the Old globe’s other non-Shakespeare summer production, Taylor and Skinner’s The Pleasure of his Company starring local favorite Patrick Page. This late 1950s comedy has all the benefits of period Freudian underpinnings without the breakneck pacing of earlier screwball comedies. But while it seemed slow and overly dated at first, the cast hit a rhythm just after intermission making for a not unpleasant evening. There is still plenty of summer Shakespeare programming available in Balboa Park for those interested, and I myself will be back down later this week to catch All’s Well That Ends Well. So, if you are lucky enough to live in San Diego to begin with, you’ve got no excuse to keep yourself from catching Sight Unseen, which will continue to run through September 7.


Your shape stupendous

August 11, 2008


My recent trip to Santa Fe gave me an opportunity to see and do a couple of things indirectly related to opera that I thought might be worth mentioning. I got the pleasure of meeting The Standing Room’s Sidney Chen in, you guessed it, the standing room at Friday’s spectacular Adriana Mater performance. Two bloggers meet and momentarily the time/reality continuum seems to bend. But prior to this was another interesting side trip up to the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The museum is run by the University of California on behalf of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and it represents an overview of the history of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s (from which the first nuclear bombs were developed) as well as the general work and research areas that the LANL continue to this day. I’ve been to Los Alamos before, often to visit Bandelier National Monument, a beautiful and mysterious treasure in the mountains, but this is the first time I’ve actually visited anything relating to the city’s less ancient history. I was motivated in part due to the upcoming performances of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera this fall in a new staging directed by Penny Woolcock in a co-production with English National Opera. (Tickets are on sale at Noon on Sunday if you don't already have yours.) I’ve seen the opera twice before in San Francisco in 2005 and last year in Chicago and can’t wait to see it again for what is unquestionably the biggest thing happening in New York opera-wise this coming season. As I’ve noted before, it’s a masterpiece, and a visit to the history room at the Los Alamos museum seemed appropriate to see some of the material that inspired the opera and made it into the libretto first hand.

The thing that struck me most at the museum was an important fact about the opera itself that is often overlooked in much of the popular criticism about the piece. The museum’s history exhibit focuses heavily on photos and reminiscences of dozens of ordinary Americans - men and women, scientists and not - who lived secretly in Los Alamos during the days of the Manhattan Project working for their country on a horrible weapon that would end the war, they hoped, but also change the world in ways even they did not completely understand. In secret, these predominantly young adults hid away often from their own families for the sake of secrecy and worked around the clock at times to prepare the bomb that would be tested in the summer of 1945 at the Trinity site in the southern New Mexico desert as well as those that would later be dropped on Japan. These photos and articles were a keen reminder of what Adams and his librettist Peter Sellars have repeatedly recognized about the work – it is an opera about much more than J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s an opera about America as a whole and about a group of ordinary citizens, doing what they normally do and making sacrifices to reach an end they hope will be for the best but may be infinitely more complicated.

The exhibit also includes a brief film about Los Alamos that notes the area prior to the Manhattan Project was nothing more than a ranch for the sickly male children of wealth families until the government took possession of it in the early 1940s. The film later features Oppenheimer himself quoting the Bhagavad Gita when referring to the Trinity test in much the same way that Act II of Doctor Atomic ends. It brought tears to my eyes and I could see much of the emotional potential of the topic and, I imagine, some of its draw to Adams and Sellars. It’s a quintessentially American topic for an opera and it has been fashioned into a great one. Of course, I suspect that many people will continue to miss the boat on this one. Doctor Atomic does not have a traditional libretto. Sellars and Adams culled it together from other written source material attributed to characters in the opera or the work of a variety of different poets. The opera has been amplified in all the performances to date at the insistence of the composer. These and other factors are hard things to get over for some of the insanely rigid and shortsighted folks who call themselves opera fans. But nonetheless, Doctor Atomic is another operatic landmark and I would imagine the folks in Santa Fe would be chomping at the bit to stage it. To stage the opera in the open countryside of the very mountainous land it refers to for an audience of some of the ancestors of the very people depicted in the opera seems like too great an artistic temptation to pass up. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.


Big things in small packages

August 10, 2008

Bad, blurry photo of Andrew Russo and Relix Fan of Real Quiet with Huang Ruo
Photo : mine 2008

My trip to Santa Fe wasn’t all about opera. In fact there was more than enough time to catch some music from the other end of the spectrum via the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s programs at the St. Francis Auditorium. The Festival has consistently programmed a wide variety of works with some of the most accomplished musicians around and this year was no different. The festival usually stretches over a number of weeks and involves a confluence of artists in Santa Fe during August for the opera season and other events. The three concerts I caught on August 6, 7 , and 8 covered everything from Beethoven and Schumann to three world premieres including one from Kaija Saariaho, who was also in town for the U.S. premiere of her opera Adriana Mater (which you can read more about here.)

All three of these concerts were top notch chamber shows, and I count myself fortunate to have timed my visit in conjunction with a string of appearances of one of America’s finest chamber ensembles, Real Quiet. A trio consisting of cellist Felix Fan, keyboardist Andrew Russo, and percussionist David Cossin, the ensemble has made a reputation based mostly on their performance of new and late 20th century music. They started Tuesday’s program with Phil Kline’s The Last Buffalo, a melodic and contemplative work that compares favorably to the later works of John Adams. Woeful but also warm, the piece sounded majestic with the group's clear-minded performance. But the best was yet to come.

On Wednesday night they performed two world premieres. First was Kaija Saariaho’s Serenatas consisting of five short movements which the composer leaves to the performers to play in whatever order they see fit. Filled with darkness and light, Saariaho’s music is surprisingly as expansive with a small ensemble as it is with a large orchestra. This was another intriguing and inspiring work from one of the world’s greatest living composers. The other world premiere that evening was from 30-year-old Chinese composer Huang Ruo entitled Real Loud and was specifically commissioned for the trio. Ruo’s three-movement piece does trade heavily in Asian influences and involves wide swings in dynamics on a variety of cymbals, gongs, and bass drum. The second movement ends with all three players blowing into various jugs and bottles for a mysterious wind effect. The contrasts hung together here in a convincing whole for a young composer I’d certainly like to hear more from based on this small sample.

The members of Real Quiet had more to offer, though, as Felix Fan and Andrew Russo returned on Thursday for completely captivating performances of Elliott Carter’s Cello Sonata and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano. Both were insightful and motivated readings that the audience responded to wholeheartedly. It’s great that the festival, like the local opera company, continues to have such a big commitment to contemporary music and it’s players. Plus, these shorter, often 90 minute programs are some of the best deals in town with top ticket prices often little more than 15 or 20 dollars. What a deal.


Family Ties

August 09, 2008

Monica Groop, Matthew Best, Pia Freund, and Joseph Kaiser.
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2008

This was a busy news day. Though I’m not sure most Americans would know it. CNN is awash in coverage about former Sen. John Edwards admitting to an extra-marital affair. NBC and the L.A. Times meanwhile are preoccupied with beautiful costumes and fireworks that marked the opening of the Beijing Olympics. Amidst all this so-called news, buried deeply (except at the New York Times where it was front and center this afternoon) are reports of military conflict between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia in a part of the world that has seen this sort of tragedy with a sad frequency. I’m not sure who’s going to be the winner in this conflict but I have a pretty good inkling who the losers will be.

I wager Kaija Saariaho and her collaborator Amin Maalouf know the answer to this question as well after seeing the U.S. premiere of their second operatic work, Adriana Mater here in Santa Fe. I had one prior exposure to it in 2006 during the world premiere run in Paris and I am just as convinced now that it is a powerful and moving work that is likely one of the first real operatic masterpieces of the the 21st century. (Alongside Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Adès’ The Tempest and Saariaho’s prior L’amour de Loin.) Set in an anonymous village in Eastern Europe or Asia, the piece concerns a young woman, Adriana, who is raped during a war by a man in the defending army she has known from her youth. She becomes pregnant and against the advice of her sister Refka, keeps the child whom she hopes will become something other than his father. As an adult, her son, Yonas, is enraged to discover the truth of his conception and vows to kill his father. However, when his father returns to their town, now old and blind, Yonas finds he is unable to enact the vengeance he has planned. Adriana finds this inaction liberating for her and her son noting that they are not avenged, but saved. All of this is cut with recurring dream sequences where characters recall events from dreams where they relive or imagine events related to their lives.

Saariaho’s score is dark and shimmering and gloriously beautiful. It was handled here with great sensitivity from Ernest Martinez Izquierdo who also helmed performances of the opera in Helsinki. He has a bit more of a straightforward approach to the opera than Esa-Pekka Salonen did in 2006, but it is still very effective. Peter Sellars’ production from that premiere run has been adapted to the smaller outdoor stage in Santa Fe. It maintains the bleak and minimal George Tsypin-designed huts but is forced to forgo the shadow effects that were prominent at the Bastille. The work now features a different cast with Monica Groop as Adriana, Pia Freund as her sister Refka, Matthew Best as Tsargo, and Joseph Kaiser as her son, Yonas. All were exceptional, but I was particularly taken with Groop’s earthy and intelligent performance. She infused Saariaho’s lyric vocal lines with real poignancy. This production also benefits from an absolutely incendiary turn from Kaiser. His rage and frustration are palpable and the tears on his face in the final scene looked awfully real. This is not a piece about action but one about catharsis, dreams, and blood. It is very sad and most of the time very beautiful.

This opera matters not just because of the relevance of it’s topic to current events, but because I would argue it represents something far different in opera. It’s a work about agency and in particular a woman’s agency to break a cycle of violence and hatred. The characters actually escape their fate by willing themselves to do so and no one must die to do so in a Wagnerian-style redemption. Or as Adriana puts it in Maalouf’s poetic libretto, blood means nothing. It's a work about simple human forgiveness and peace with no magic and that may make it harder to swallow than anything for an American opera audience. I’m sure there is an argument to be made that Adriana Mater is perhaps the first feminist opera as well, although I’ll leave that to others better equipped to do so. Suffice it to say this is something new. Or as a friend of mine said to me after the show, “I’m not sure this is really an opera.” That’s exactly right. And that’s exactly why it’s a great one.


Quality Control

August 08, 2008

Set for Act II of Radamisto
Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2008

Now that’s more like it. Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Handel’s Radamisto is fantastic. Bitch and moan all you want about Daivd Alden’s modern, sleek, quasi-Asian/Middle Eastern production, this is why I keep coming back to Santa Fe: it represents some of what they do best – fresh, fun, and musically sensitive performances of things you don’t see everyday that deserve a wider audience. Now as I’ve noted here before, I’m biased in that I love, love, love Baroque opera. Forget Verdi, Mozart, and Wagner. Opera was over after Handel. (With the possible exception of Massenet.) He said it all and turned the shit out. In fact I get rather bummed out when cuts are made, which there were here in Santa Fe, leaving about 2 hours and 40 minutes when all was said and done. This is easily an hour less than the excellent edited earlier version of Radamisto Musica Angelica presented in Los Angeles earlier this year. (See the link above.)

This fully staged performance in Santa Fe may be shorter but it is not for lack of big name talent. In fact the most surprising thing may be that its stars David Daniels and Laura Claycomb have never appeared here before. Daniels is perhaps the most consistently excellent vocal artist before the public today. I can’t recall ever seeing him give a performance that was anything other than superior and his Radamisto is no exception. At turns heart-breaking and rageful he commands the stage. And while all the cast were great, however, I would also point out Heidi Stober’s Tigrane, which sounded amazing underneath the heavy suit of a balding middle-aged man with a fez. She frequently walks off with scenes.

And while we’re on the topic of artists who are consistently excellent, I should mention Harry Bicket who returns to Santa Fe to conduct these performances. Exciting, well-paced, lively and never rushed, the orchestra was dead-on tonight and clearly have a rapport with this master of Baroque repertory. It's a wonderful evening that isn't cluttered and doesn't take itself too seriously, which is always a necessary requirement for Baroque opera. And don't miss the fake stuffed tiger pierced with numerous arrows hung from the roof in the final scene. It's borrowed directly from the work of Cai Guo-Qiang and floats among a whole host of animal symbols throughout the production. There are two shows left on August 15 and 20th both of which I'd catch if I was in town.


Pecs and the Man

August 07, 2008

Lucas Meachem and Teddy Tahu Rhodes show off their jazz hands
Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2008

I must admit I found Santa Fe Opera’s current production of Britten’s Billy Budd a disappointment. I wanted to like it. I really, really did. But sometimes things don't work out the way you'd expect. The biggest negative of the evening on paper was the new production being helmed by Paul Curran, who is responsible for some of the most pedestrian and boring productions around including last year’s atrocious La Bohème here in Santa Fe. But I must admit that the production wasn’t as bad as I expected. It had a fair amount of movement with some clever scene changes and a very effective final scene where the hanging of Budd was handled with a stark and moving grace, the body back lit and shadowed against a large sail that filled the stage. But it was far from perfect. The whole show was a bit precious and at times reminded me of a gay musical-theater version of Master and Commander. But isn’t that what Billy Budd is more or less to begin with anyway? The stage was often cluttered and crammed with too many people in too little space creating unfocused and fussy visuals. The choreography was laughable at times most unfortunately when Budd kills Claggart with what appears to be a poorly thrown punch which elicited a few guffaws from tonight’s audience. Of course it wasn't a complete surprise after the veritable floor show that had preceded it as pictured above.

The cast was good, but only Peter Rose’s Claggart was completely satisfying. His Act I aria concerning his resolve to destroy beauty was actually chilling. Meanwhile William Burden was cast as Captain Vere in a performance that was a bit croony at times often leaving him sounding more like Nemorino than a senior British naval officer. He lacked a certain sense of Vere's restraint of his own emotions. Of course all of this was secondary to the highly anticipated starring performance of Teddy Tahu Rhodes. He has a wonderful voice and he has all the lanky muscle with glistening pecs so popular with the kids these days. He had frequent opportunities to climb up and down rope ladders using nothing but his arms. Gratuitous, maybe, but not an unaffecting performance. He was a little more on the happy-go-lucky naïve side than was necessary, but you could believe that the other sailors did really love him.

The other highly anticipated performance tonight was that of newly appointed SFO music director Edo de Waart. De Waart has a long history with this company and he was welcomed back warmly in his new role with a performance that had many strong and spirited moments. So, while there are few reasons to like this Billy Budd, it unfortunately is not one for the record books.


Seems like old times

August 06, 2008

Susanna Phillips and wig
Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2008

For all its reputation as a company advocating the works of Richard Strauss, the Santa Fe Opera has an even richer tradition in the operas of Mozart. Now in its 51st year, SFO has only had four summer seasons that did not include Mozart and this year isn't one of them with a new production of Le Nozze di Figaro. Like last night’s Falstaff, this is another quality production that is well sung and competently done if not particularly bold or grand. It’s a period production with little edge, but has a thoughtful and witty look with a fair amount of movement. A field of flowers that covers the stage is picked clean downstage by a group of male servants at the start of the show to make room for the actors and sets. Later they replace them piece by piece back into the stage at the opening of the final act. I’m not sure what all this is about but it is rather comic. There aren’t many surprises here overall, though, and sometimes director Joanthan Kent's stage direction is awkward and disjointed.

The cast has a number of notable singing actors including Mariusz Kwiecien as Count Almaviva, Susanna Phillips as the Countess, Elizabeth Watts as Susannah, and Luca Pisaroni as Figaro. Pretty and agile, no one disappointed but I admit Kwiecien is a real superstar and he plied his way with ease across the whole performance receiving a loud and enthusiastic reception from the audience. He was a magnificent Don Givanni in San Francisco in 2007, and I for one continue to be impressed with his cool, even baritone. Of course there is that thorny problem when the count is so much hotter than Figaro - not that it's unimaginable, it just muddies the water.

Canadian Robert Tweten was a one evening fill-in for Kenneth Montgomery who has helmed the rest of the performances here and the orchestra sounded good but could have perhaps used a little more zing overall. Of course some people are never happy. The elderly woman behind me decided to lodge a protest from the Stockhausen-fanatic contingent of the audience by augmenting the score. After her cell-phone went off during the first act she decided to allow the audible repetitive message alerting beep of the phone continue throughout the rest of the entire performance giving the entire night a rather electronic flair. She slyly joined everyone else around her in complaining about the noise during the intermission creating the impression that there was no way the sound could be emanating from her own overstuffed bag, thus creating enough social awkwardness that no one was willing to more assertively and insistently confront her. Those serialists just can't let anything go can they.

blurry photo of Kaija Saairaho in Santa Fe
Photo : mine 2008

On a brighter note, Kaija Saariaho was in the audience. She's still in town for the performances of her opera Adriana Mater as well as the world premiere of a new chamber piece that is taking place over a few shows this week with the Real Quiet ensemble and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. (I'll have more on all this later on so stay tuned.) Apparently she was eager to check out what the now-dead-over-200-years competition is up to these days which makes sense only in America. Let freedom ring.


Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now

August 05, 2008

Kelley O'Connor, Claire Rutter, and Nancy Maultsby see what's in the hamper
Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2008

Most great operas are great because they are either incredibly fragile or unimaginably sturdy. On the one hand, an opera can be so involved and demanding in so many ways that it can be nearly impossible to perform without the failure of some key element. Part of the charm here is searching for perfection that may never be reachable like, say, with Tristan. Then, on the other hand, there is another group of great operas, those that seem to stand up marvelously no matter what you do to them. Below-average singing? No matter. Dull, uninspired staging? Whatever. Sloppy orchestra? A nuisance. While many of these seemingly impervious works belong to Mozart, Verdi’s Falstaff is another. It is a construction so well written, so tightly constructed, it’s charming virtually whatever happens to it.

And so it goes here in the desert, where I started my trip to this year’s Santa Fe Opera season with Verdi’s final opera in what is a solid and thoroughly enjoyable evening. In fact it’s more a pleasure than it should be considering that it does suffer from probably the most predictable staging under director Kevin Newbury. It’s stuffed with every crowd pleasing comedic trope you can think of from impish doe-eyed kids to spit takes. But, it’s still funny which is a testament to Verdi, librettist Boito and I suppose Shakespeare as well if one must drag his name into everything. I suppose I should give some credit to the Falstaff himself, Anthony Michaels-Moore, who is taking over for Laurent Naouri in the final three weeks of the run. Michaels-Moore was superb in the Met's Peter Grimes earlier this year and he is adequately buffoonish without overplaying his hand and vocally consistent. Claire Rutter’s Alice Ford was also very good and provided the other rock-solid vocal pillar in this construction. The always excellent Kelly O’Connor wasn’t given enough to do as Meg Page, but she worked well with Rutter and Nancy Maultsby’s Mistress Quickly. Not all was great in the vocal area however. The Nannetta, played by Laura Giordano, and Fenton, played by Norman Reinhardt, both quickly unraveled in the final scene, just when they both finally had something to do.

Still, on balance, it was entirely enjoyable. The conductor, Paolo Arrivabeni, in his U.S. debut in these performances, led the orchestra in a good if not especially nuanced performance. Of course this is all outdoors so nuance can sometimes get lost. So what is called for is something sturdy that can withstand the monsoonal thunderstorms here at night like the Santa Fe Opera amphitheater itself. Falstaff, an opera that has seen several prior outings here in New Mexico, continues to be just the ticket.


Gonna Fly Now

August 03, 2008

Sabrina Sloan, Rende Rae Norman and Eileen T'Kaye
Photo: Ed Krieger/Boston Court Theater 2008

A lesson for the new century – Max Bialystock’s downfall is not the result simply of unbridled ambition but of poor execution. In Mel Brooks’ The Producers he famously stages the worst musical imaginable in the hopes of guaranteeing a flop—and his success. But things go awry when he overshoots his mark, “Springtime for Hitler” becomes a comic hit. If he wanted to ensure a financially profitable flop, he might have wanted to aim lower, say with Anton Chekhov instead. Sure it may seem that the Russian’s plays scream out for musical adaptations, but they are not as easy as you might think.

Take Gulls, the world premiere musical currently on stage at The Theater at Boston Court. With book and lyrics by Nick Salamone and music by Maury McIntyre, the adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull boldly takes a play that is thorny to begin with and replants it in 1959. A gutsy move to be sure, but more so when one considers the many transpositions and reassignments that are needed to keep this boat moving. Though to be fair, if Chekhov were writing today the interracial-gay-love-affair-between-two-US-Navy-men-during-WWII subplot might well have made the final cut of the original. Oh yes there is a lot here to chew on and, after about three hours, one’s jaws are achingly tired. But at least there is a happy ending. (Though somehow not for the gay couple, but isn't that always the way in the theater?)

The music itself is jazz-influenced and often quite catchy. There are some great numbers, especially for Rendé Rae Norman who stars as the pushy actress-mother Irenie Bennett. The whole piece works not unlike a Handel opera where all of the 9 major characters get their own arias and moments to shine in each act. The production is set on a single New York City rooftop and as is typical for Boston Court it appears that no expense was spared on the production relative to the theater's small size. That’s true of the cast as well, which features the likes of such talents as Clinton Derricks-Carroll who fills an essentially unnecessary narrator role with some of the evening's liveliest moments. The ingenue role is occupied quite strikingly by Sabrina Sloan, an ex-American Idol finalist and a darn good vocalist. Director Jessica Kubzansky keeps everyone moving, which is no small task given the overly involved and complicated machinery of the story and a rather large cast.

But all is not well for a work that seems both overly explained and hopelessly confusing at the same time. So in an A for effort world, Gulls might soar, but here on earth, we are left to wonder and hope that somewhere, someone is making a killing off of this rather reaching failure.

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